Far from a balance
Companies in Asia still seem to be apathetic about the importance and benefits of fostering gender diversity in the workplace, studies find
While the number of women holding top positions in the corporate world may be on the rise globally, their progress in Asian countries has remained particularly slow.
According to the latest Women Matter research by McKinsey&Company, the proportion of women sitting on corporate boards and executive committees in Asian companies is strikingly low compared to Europe and the United States, despite the fact that women in those regions remain under-represented as well.
The study, which polled 744 companies and 1,500 senior managers in 10 markets, found that women on average account for 6 percent of seats on corporate boards and 8 percent of those on executive committees in Asia. This is in stark contrast to Europe (17 and 10 percent respectively) and the United States (15 and 14 percent).
In China, where female labor participation rates rank among the highest in the world, only 8 percent of corporate board members and 9 percent of executive committee members are women.
“Asian culture hasn’t matured enough to accept the fact that women can hold a job and also have a family,” said Ellen Teo, CEO of Union Energy in Singapore, in the Women in Business report by Grant Thornton, which identifies stereotypes and gender bias as significant barriers to leadership.
Linda Wirth, a gender expert with the International Labor Organization, said in the Grant Thornton report that gender bias can range from the questions asked in interviews to men presenting women’s ideas as their own in meetings.
“Bias is subtle at the beginning of a career, but causes a clear separation of career paths,” said Wirth.
The Women Matter research findings cite the greatest obstacle faced by many working women in Asia is the act of juggling work and family responsibilities. This is particularly so in cultures where women are expected to shoulder all household duties.
Wang Yanhong, who is the only female board member of a chemical company in Shanghai, is no stranger to this problem.
“In the beginning, it was quite difficult for the other board members to listen to me because they couldn’t trust someone who is a working wife and a mother,” said Wang.
She added that male board members often made decisions without asking for her opinion and it was only when she secured two major deals using her own resources and network that the men were finally convinced of her ability.
“I don’t want to be isolated just because I am the only woman in the group. There should be equal opportunities for every member to express his or her opinions and ideas,” said Wang.
McKinsey’s research also revealed that women in Asia still face limitations when it comes to job promotions and that there is a significant falloff in their representation at senior levels, highlighting how gender diversity is not yet a strategic imperative for Chinese companies.
“Even though women account for half of Asia’s graduate cohort, they are becoming increasingly under-represented at the senior levels of corporations and are facing different obstacles in different markets, at different stages of their careers,” said Wang Jin, a partner Shanghai office.
“In China, for example, where labor participation rates are high, women account for more than half of all professional entry-level positions but far much less thereafter.”
Grant Thornton’s Women in Business report, which is based on the findings of 5,404 interviews in 35 economies and 20 in-depth interviews with senior business leaders, found that a woman’s career advancement is usually constrained by a number of factors such as entrenched social norms, gender bias, parenthood and archaic business practices.
It found that the proportion of women in top positions has barely changed throughout the years — it increased from 19 percent in 2004 to just 22 percent today — and will never reach
in McKinsey’s higher than 24 percent over the intervening period.
A slightly more encouraging statistic is that the proportion of businesses with no women in their leadership teams has dropped from 38 to 32 percent in the same time frame. This figure drops further to 26 percent for the most dynamic (or high-growth) businesses listed in the survey, and is cited as a probable indication of the benefits greater leadership diversity brings.
In order to explore the positive impacts of having more women in leadership roles, AmCham Shanghai held the HeForShe conference on Feb 24, gathering more than 150 business executives to discuss how different industries could work toward advancing female leadership and the best practices for overcoming workplace challenges.
Industry leaders also talked about setting targets to develop more women leaders, the metrics for implementing and measuring progress, and how developing women leaders can enhance shareholder value.
“Businesses need to recognize that making a top-level commitment to facilitate women’s career paths is integral to future prosperity,” said Amit Midha, president of Dell Asia and Japan Region, during the conference.
Grant Thornton’s report added that women account for one-half of the potential human capital in any economy. This statement is backed by the World Bank, which has said that countries with greater gender equality are more prosperous and competitive.
“To put it simply, when women thrive, businesses thrive. If an economy is only using half of its most talented people then it is immediately cutting its growth potential,” said Jason Chen, chairman of the partnership board at Grant Thornton China, during the opening speech of the conference.
Grant Thornton’s report suggested that governments around the world can play an important role in helping more women reach the upper echelons of the business world by introducing legislation pertaining to the composition of corporate boards, parental leave or the building of relevant infrastructure such as childcare centers at or near offices.
“Governments can raise more awareness of the issue and introduce policies or support measures that help more women gain a footing in the workplace and fill senior roles,” said Wang, a partner in McKinsey’s Shanghai office which introduced the formula for change.
“The business community can also lead the way, setting standards and acting as role models in order to shift attitudes and build momentum for change.”
AmCham Shanghai held the HeForShe conference to help companies explore the topic of gender diversity.